By Marylene Delbourg-Delphis @mddelphis
Chatting over breakfast the other day at Il Fornaio with Nilofer Merchant, whose book The New How, Building Business Solutions Through Collaborative Strategy I discussed in a former post, I realized that a “new how” often starts with a “new me.” This “new me” can be triggered by unforeseen events – events that can either traumatize and send us into dispiriting limbos or, instead, move us forward. The latter definitely illustrates the early life of Nilofer. A Muslim girl born in Mumbai who followed her mother to the United States when she was five, she was culturally destined to become the lovely wife of (preferably) a rich man.
The tale of two worlds: Nilofer’s mother came to the Silicon Valley after she divorced her husband in India. In order to make a living to support her children, she decided get a degree in respiratory therapy. Nilofer saw her mother become a student – a great role model in a way. Yet, it’s a case when role modeling doesn’t necessarily mean that much. Nilofer’s mother worked out of necessity and not for self-development or accomplishment. In other words, she stuck to the culture in which she was born; as a result, she did not inspire her own daughter the way she intended, and the relationship between mother and daughter turned into a dialogue between the deaf when the time came of discussing the terms of Nilofer’s arranged marriage.
Nilofer had graduated from high school and just started Community College. She did not have an issue with the arranged marriage itself, and she had no interest in a cultural rebellion. “I knew,” she says, “that it was my responsibility to accept an arranged marriage. My mother had made many hard decisions to raise us. I always felt a combination of debt and gratitude, and my assigned cultural role was to get married in such a way that it would dowry-wise take care of my mother.” So what went wrong? One day, Nilofer, coming back from school, found her entire family (uncles, aunts, and cousins) in the midst of a sort of pre-Nikah party celebrating the fact that a contract for the arranged marriage had been completed. Everything would have been fine, except that when Nilofer asked her uncle if the contract arranged for college for her, he responded that her mother didn’t want to put the topic on the table. Being raised in the US, Nilofer asked to simply add this clause in the contract. Her mother wouldn’t allow it. After a few days of fighting, Nilofer realized that her threat of leaving the house wouldn’t sway her mother. So, she packed books and clothes in boxes and moved away — and was disowned: ” I no longer had a family; I no longer had a culture. I no longer had a community,” Nilofer says.
Alea jacta est (The die has been cast): Such a defining moment comes by chance or mishap. It’s an inflection point on the road of your personal history, a sudden discovery that shatters your world and creates the acute sense that you must act quickly. Had Nilofer ever dreamed of moving out and settling into the tiny space she was given as student body treasurer? Obviously not: but she recognized that, while her mother had power because she owned her community, she herself had the power to negotiate because she was a valuable commodity. She saw two choices ahead of her that had never materialized before – one safe, the other unknown – and chose the uncharted road. In that act, she unwound her personal destiny from her cultural and family identities, and placed it into her own hands.
For Nilofer, reinventing herself was not so much an act of mutiny or even of provocation (in fact she was sure that her mother would change her mind) – as it was the instinctive acknowledgement that the world exists beyond one’s doorstep. Nilofer worked her way through college for ten years, landing jobs at Apple, GoLive Systems, and Autodesk. I found interesting that, as soon as she completed her MBA, she named her consulting firm Rubicon Consulting (a company she ran successfully for ten years). She is now onto her new venture, also quite significantly branded: Innovative Cultures & Kicking Ass.